American Monster V: Going Dutch

The murder of Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh on Tuesday, November 2 has proven the catalyst for an epidemic of violence that has deeply damaged the image of the Dutch, both domestically and abroad, as a tolerant people.

In the almost three weeks since the murder, on a daylight street in Amsterdam, mosques and churches have been bombed and a 15 hour shoot-out took place between Islamists and the police in The Hague, which resulted in the wounding of one suspect and two police officers.

But Van Gogh’s murder is only the latest in a series of violent actions by Islamists in this small country. When S. and I visited Amsterdam this summer, our friend, C., an American graphic designer who had lived in the city for five years, commented that the country’s tradition of tolerance had produced unforeseen results. Namely, Islamic religious leaders, who had gained entrance to Holland due to that country’s liberal immigration laws, were preaching violence against the unrighteous, that is, against those whose culture and laws had allowed them to be there in the first place. The Dutch.

The enormous amount of immigrants, many from Islamic countries, have been welcomed into Holland over the past decades. Holland’s tradition of asylum extends back at least to the 16th century when many thousands of Sephardic Jews were welcomed into the country after they had been expelled from first Spain and then Portugal.

The problem is that these latest immigrants were provided with the necessities for life but were not required to become a part of the Dutch society that they felt alienated from and, with the encouragement of some imams, grew to hate. There were no economic forces driving them into the mainstream, they were frequently physically isolated in ghettos, and there were no languages requirements, resulting in second generation Dutch of Islamic heritage who speak no Dutch.

The earlier (May 6, 2002) murder of the anti-immigrant demagogic politician Pim Fortuyn was the first high-profile shot fired in this conflict. Although Fortuyn’s murderer was not a Muslim, many believed his strident condemnation of Holland’s immigration policy was a factor in creating the atmosphere in which he was killed.

In her September, 2002 paper, “The Netherlands: Tolerance Under Pressure,” Joanne Van Selm of the Migration Policy Institute said, “The atmosphere seems increasingly unwelcoming. Tolerance is clearly showing its limits.” It seems she was on to something.

Holland has the highest population density in the European Union: 388 people per square kilometer according to a 2000 United Nations estimate. As of 2003, 18.4 % of Dutch, almost 3,000,000, were foreign born. By 2002, according to the Dutch Central Office for Statistics, the population of the Netherlands was growing by 329 people per day. (Admittedly, it is always difficult to wade purposefully through the mass of data each government and organization provides, much of which is contradictory.)

At any rate, Holland has a great many immigrants, virtually no breaks on the process; they are coming at an increasing rate and are becoming a higher percentage of the country’s inhabitants and they seem increasingly to be at odds with Dutch society as a whole.

I wrote C., asking him simply, “What in the hell is going on over there?”

He said:

“It would take quite some time for me to respond properly, and you probably know as much as I do.

“While the hubbub over the last weeks’ events — first van Gogh’s murder, then the appalling ‘revenge’ attacks on a mosque and a school, and finally an unrelated but terrifying siege by the police of an apartment block in the center of the Hague which turned out to be housing a group of grenade-tossing terrorists (yup, they were Muslims, too), and which was accompanied by a disturbance on the street by a group of very white teenagers — has died down for the time being (we haven’t started an war in a show of righteous indignation), everyone is saying that the Dutch tradition of enlightened tolerance is deeply wounded.

“Whether this is the case or not, is yet to be seen. Most people would say that van Gogh was not a beloved figure, and few actually saw his films or read his other work. The clips of Submission which I saw were indeed outrageously insensitive, and I would imagine that many would find the film highly insulting. Not nearly as insulting, however, as the work of the fool who killed van Gogh, or the work of the imam who urged him to action.

“There’s a growing trifold split between the radical Muslims in one corner, the reactionary Dutch in another corner, and the ‘enlightened’ Dutch, many of whom represent the government, but many more just normal people, in the other corner.

“I have a feeling that a logical, legal solution will be found for the imams who incite their associates to violence. And that reconciliation with the rest of Islamic Holland is possible. But at the same time, the reactionary segment of the population is a sort of powder keg. They were the one’s who elected the Pim Fortuyn party into a minority government.

“And speaking of Fortuyn, an annual survey (conducted by one of the newspapers? I’m not sure, really) to select the Greatest Nederlander of All Time, revealed the bald-headed nincompoop Fortuyn to be the winner this year. Never mind Rembrandt, Erasmus, William of Orange, Admiral de Ruyter, etc….”

I responded:

“That’s a good point, that you have stabby-stabbies on one side, meatheads on the other and the regular Dutch in the middle and, arguably, enabling the meatheads to whack on the stabbies and vice versa. Hopefully, unfashionable as it is, and in some way counter to Dutch sensibility, you’ll take the imams to task and require a little come-along as opposed to really dropping the hammer. One of the things I took away from my safe European home this summer was a weird feeling about the change in culture and the potential for civil strife due to immigration. This situation and dynamic bei euch is a good example of this.

“I think this will be Europe’s number one challenge in the coming years. All-in-all, the whole world’s freaking me out. And as for self-righteous wars, don’t count your chickens before they’re ethnically cleansed.”

C. wrote back:

“The police and the government have been busy for years now trying to figure out how to ‘deal’ with certain religious leaders who not only preach revolution, but who urge their congregation to react violently toward sinners, which of course includes all of the infidel West. (Instructions given recently by one sage for dealing with homosexuality — something which they surely claim only occurs outside the Islamic world — are simple: hunt them down and push them off a building.) That they simplify matters by describing the citizens of their host country as “firewood for hell” only makes this business of tidying up Allah’s world easier.

”It seems to me that the simple laws prohibiting incitement to violence would be sufficient grounds for prosecution. Sure some people will decry this as undermining the right to free speech. But surely freedom of speech does not include directly urging organized groups of people to attack and kill others. As far as I’m concerned, once one crazy acts on this speech, then the speaker is liable. At any rate, I’d rather see simple measures to maintain the peace used, than for everyone to get so alarmed that they start setting up death camps.

“Yeah, Europe’s been dealing with this stuff for a while now, and will continue at an accelerated rate, now that our borders are open. The reason France and Germany are so quiet about it all these days is not, I think, out of anti-American spite, but because for them Islamic revolutionary violence is a real yawner. Been there done that, and still being there.”

I responded:

“I wonder re. the free speech limitations. I wonder that is, if structural laws, that don’t impinge those rights, might be as effective and less morally dicey. I mean things like language requirements, limitation of social services (or hinging them on certain actions, like language acquisition, etc.), employment requirements, immigration limitations and so on. But I am the first to admit, I am not a policy pro. Very complex. And may require someone with vision. Unfortunately, most Men of Vision envision themselves as heroic statues. “

C. said:

“The question of structural limitations is what the Netherlands is currently working through. Minister of Immigration Verdonk has, over the last few years, rolled out a policy of integration, which is the focus of a great deal of discussion and anger.

“Under her policies, those who wish to immigrate must take a language test, and a cultural test to prove that they are integrated into Dutch society. There are several problems with this approach. First, the cost of the imburgerings classes are high, and must be paid by the immigrant/refugee. Second, the criteria for knowledge of the Dutch culture are hard to pin down, to put it mildly. Can you imagine an American Cultural Test which would be equally applicable to someone from the Lower East Side in New York as someone from, say, rural Red State America?

“Verdonk’s moves are essentially an effort to discourage immigration. And they have worked. The rate of immigration has actually slowed substantially from its peak in 2000, largely due to her policies. But the liberal majority still finds this sort of tactic repugnant. The First Public Mock-Imburgerings Test was held in October in the Paradiso, and received a large turnout. The idea is that Dutch people gather en masse at a nightclub and attempt to pass the test. Most expressing shock and bewilderment at the bizarre questions. I’ll have a look and see if I can find any record of the questions/answers and reactions from the public.

“For some reason, I have neither been asked to take the real test, nor ordered to attend the integration classes. I was told that these are for people from other cultures and not for me. Perhaps it only applies to those who are classified as refugees? Maybe this gap in my own knowledge is proof that I’m not well-enough integrated. I have read the literature on how to obtain Dutch citizenship, and it does say that ‘a sufficient knowledge of the Dutch language and culture are required,’ so I’m diligently taking Dutch classes at night, and hoping that I understand enough of the culture to squeak by.”

American Monster III: The Soundtrack to the Fall of the West

When I first visited Berlin, in 1981, it was a place of darkness. The streets were black, it was always night time and it was always raining, razor wire and walls cut the city in half. Junk was everywhere and everyone was on it. Punk rockers and anarchists seized neglected apartment buildings and fortified them with cop-killing devices like sharpened rams and nets full of broken concrete. The west was finally collapsing and Berlin was the orchestra providing the soundtrack.

As a kid from rural Oregon I was absolutely petrified at the time. But afterward, I had Berlin to think about. I had my own private derangement of the senses, an at-hand phantasmagoria of perversions and apocalyptic terrors that captured my heart, as it would any red-blooded American boy. Berlin was a little puppy you could cuddle up close to that would eat your guts.

When I returned to Berlin this summer I was stunned. Where had all the darkness gone? The wall was down and Berlin, I am sad to say, had become Frankfurt, a place for making money. A new building went up every day. Well-adjusted Germans looked frankly at their past and practiced nodding thoughtfully. Humboldt University had begun to regain some of its former glory.

One night S. and I decided to cross over into the former east Berlin and see an early Brecht play, “The Petite Bourgeois Wedding” at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, where the ensemble had been in residence since Brecht returned to Berlin after the war. Although the façade of the building looked rather sterile and the foyer looked like a rock venue, the theatre itself was an exquisite rococo masterpiece: gilded finials, carved shields, bejeweled pilasters and red velvet.

The play, though early Brecht, was Brecht nonetheless, a farce about a wedding in which everything, from civility to romance to the stage itself winds up in pieces by the end. But that was not what struck us. What struck us was the smell.

It was an exhalation so heinous we almost left. And it was relentless. And, like the play on the stage, despite its obviousness, everyone pretended that everything was fine.

Perhaps it was a stage instruction. “Every five minutes, stick a piece of rotten meat behind a fan and blow the putrescence into the audience to underscore the rottenness of their bourgeois values.” Then we thought it was one man in particular, ahead and to the right, a gone-to-seed academic with bad hygiene. Gas? A mouth full of rotten teeth? A bag of spoiled melons? S. took to holding a perfumed handkerchief over her nose like a courtier at Versailles.

It was only later we figured out what it was. The nightmare in the theatre, which was repeated later on the street, in a barber shop, in the foyer of our hotel, in department stores and museums, was not the result of one man, nor of theatrical convention, not even of the propensity of Germans to eat nothing but pork sausage. It was the West, rotting from the inside out.

After we left Berlin we rented a car in Frankfurt and drove to Buchenwald concentration camp, where S.’s father was liberated on February 16, 1945. S. and I toured the 400 acre site in the cold rain. We were the only ones there. Hours later, wet to the skin, we stood at last outside the wire fence of the camp, in front of the last historical marker. It was placed on the road that led from the make-shift train station to the prisoner processing center. The marker said that 1500 meters, through the thick brush and not visible from where we stood, was the palace of the widowed duchess Anna Amalia of Weimar and her son, the future duke Karl August. There, Goethe had debuted many of his plays and poems and Weimar had become a byword through Europe for civilization and enlightenment. “In two hundred years,” I whispered, exhausted, to S., “from there,” and I pointed toward the palace and Goethe, “to there” and I pointed at the wet gray clay of Buchenwald.

American Monster II: We Dream of What We’ve Lost

Since before I was born what came to be known as the Eastern Block was off limits to Westerners. I don’t mean it was simply impossible for most to travel there. I mean something more insidious. I had a picture of every place I ever traveled – Wales, Spain, Germany, Canada, West Covina. Those pictures were incomplete, sometimes ludicrous, but they existed. Italians talked with their hands and ate pizza. The French talked with their hands and drank wine. In England they didn’t talk, ate fish and listened to Pink Floyd.

But I had no pictures of the Eastern Block countries and I certainly did not have pictures of the individual countries within it. In fact, the notion that there were countries radically different from each other behind the Iron Curtain was not a notion that occurred to us at all. They were all gray places and they had tank parades. Traveling with my wife to Latvia, the land of her father’s birth, a land he turned his back on after surviving the concentration camps that eager Latvian collaborators helped the nazis put him in, was a revelation.

Latvia was like wandering into someone else’s fairy tale. from the road sides, chest-tall luminescent green grasses waved in constant motion, groves of white birch trees spiking skyward, great gray rivers rolling into unknown seas, high-stalked flowers doting the fields with color. You half-expected a hero in leggings and embroidered tunic to step out from behind a birch bole and fire a magic arrow into a supernatural deer who would then turn into a rival prince, whom the hero finally realizes too late is his long-lost brother.

Traveling to Latvia’s capital Rīga was also like stumbling onto a powerful empire that you never read about in school, with guild halls as tall as skyscrapers, rich merchant houses in yellows and blues, cobbled streets with cobbles as big as cantaloupes. on one narrow street you would find a plaque marking Wagner’s tenure as music director of the symphony. Berlioz and Mendelssohn were also in residence here. dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein also came from Riga. but all this history is hidden, and to see it suddenly laid out before you is unnerving.

In Riga, which is on a parallel with Aberdeen, Scotland, the sun set after midnight and rose again before six. I would sit on the wide sash of the window in our room – the hotel was a convent for widows and, before that, the dining hall of the sword nights – and peer, going slowly mad, into the night sky, willing it to burn out my rods and cones so I could sleep. But sleep… Never came.

The Latvian language sounds like a Norwegian speaking Italian. It is round and tonal. It has the lilt of a vaguely Scandinavian tongue, although it is neither a Germanic nor a Slavic language. It’s only living relative is Lithuanian. When a Latvian speaks, what with Estonia and Finland right up the road, it sounds like the recitation of some unknown epic influenced by the Kalevala. “Atvainojiet, es nerunajat latviski,” you’d say. “Ludzu, kafiya ar piem. Cik tas maska?” you’d ask. Looking at a sign or a menu or the front of a newspaper was vertigo inducing. You couldn’t even figure out what part of speech a given word belonged to. It felt funny. And dirty. And you loved it.

I’ve been in El Salvador and Guatemala and Latvia is, hands down, the most foreign place I’ve ever been. I experienced a relentless ecstasy of otherness. I was constantly on the verge of a magnificent psychosis. These feelings were, to her surprise, shared by S. I think she expected, at least in part, to come back to the land of her father, her grandfathers and grandmothers, and feel some ownership, some familiarity. But she really did not. One day we spent walking around the city from one hideous restaurant to another trying to find something edible in a city whose questionable culinary heritage was further compromised by 50 years of soviet rule, under which every hint of culture was suspect. It culminated with us sitting outside on the patio of a Russian-run restaurant on the banks of the slate-gray Daugava. It was, as close as we could figure, a Cuban restaurant. The waitresses, pale Russian girls in turquoise miniskirts (you know, like they wear in Cuba), mottled by the cold, delivered an alleged crème brulee wobbling menacingly that had the taste and consistency of whale meat and eggrolls so suspicious and malicious we almost burst into tears.

Finally we had had it. We retreated to this once elegant city’s best restaurant, the Otto Schwarz, which sat on top of the soviet era Hotel de Rome. Although the hotel was the apogee of late Soviet design – cheap and mirrored, with yellow metal instead of gilding, like one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces – the restaurant was another page out of a different part of the past. It was lodged in between the World Wars, a time before that line had been crossed that can never be uncrossed. Sitting virtually alone, the gorgeous city was spread out beneath us: the parks, the canal, Vecrīga, the old city wandering downhill toward the river, the “new” suburbs of the 1800s with their jugendstil buildings, iced and ornamented with stone pine cones, caryatids and atlases, the stylized onion domes of Svētās Pētera and the Doma. Inside, amid white table clothes, walnut wainscoting, silver service and crystal, an old man played jazz standards and chanson on the grand piano, short-coated waiters delivered lamb shanks, potato croquettes and spinach shrimp soup and marzipan. It was loss made physical. It was the drifting back to a time before the glass broke and was scattered. It was a monument to the death not only of six million Jews but of a whole way of life. It was the eulogy to a Europe that was once whole. It was the period that marked the last full sentence Europe ever spoke to the world.

We went to Rumbala, the forest where S.’s grandfather, a cantor, and grandmother, along with 25,000 other Latvian Jews were shot, the Kaiserwald transit camp and ghetto where her father was imprisoned before the long ride to Stutthof, near Gdansk in Poland, and to Buchenwald. When her father was freed in 1945 he was contacted by his brother, Simi, who, with his blond hair and blue eyes, had been hidden in plain sight by a Latvian family. “Come back to Latvia,” Simi said to Israel. “It is a new place. It’s free.” “Nonsense,” said Israel. “The Russians are as bad as the Germans.” S.’s father went to America. He moved to San Francisco. He was a young man, free for the first time, single, handsome, European, in the best city in the world at the time, a city full of cocktail bars and movie stars. Simi became an officer in the Soviet Army.

I sat there in the Otto Schwarz restaurant in Riga and watched S.’s eyes wander out of time over the city of her father’s memories. I listened to the echoes of that lost time, feeling it pass over me. We dream of what we’ve lost. I saw Europe dreaming.

American Monster I: Europe Was Our Ideal

Europe was our ideal. Europe at one time was not merely a place, not simply an economic or political entity. It was not even just an idea. In Europe one found an atmosphere of free inquiry, a prerequisite for scientific and philosophical activity that was largely absent elsewhere in the world. Europe had developed and implemented the powerful notions of individual worth and political liberty, of democracy, of the free pursuit of one’s own fate, or the freedom to change that fate, to move from one place to another, one profession, class or religion to another. It was the richest place on earth, both in economic terms and in artistic ones. It held the reins of world governance, both through dint of moral authority and power of arms. What happened in Kinshasa or Chicago meant little. What happened in Paris or London meant everything.

The picture the American media presents of Europe is that of an undifferentiated mass, dead-set on going toe-to-toe with the U.S. as an economic, political and military force. To American conservatives, Europe is a tourist trap filled with indulgent, unrealistic sybarites; a Greece to America’s Rome. To liberals, it is a promised land, bathed in the golden light of reason and peace; a Judea to America’s Babylon. But Europe is a fiction that we change to fit our needs.

And Europe is no longer our ideal. I discovered this recently during a month and a half spent traveling with my wife, SJ, through Latvia, Holland, Germany, France and England. We traveled in a post-9/11 world and at the time of the expansion of the European Union, the time of the elections for the European parliament, during Euro 2004, the European football championship, which, for the first time, featured Latvia as a contender and Greece as the winner.

Europe was my ideal. I first went to Europe when I was 17 on an unofficial student exchange put together by my high school German instructor. The liberation of walking around Cologne, West Germany (already you can sense how it’s changed, just from the names), fresh from rural Oregon was a watershed moment in my life. My father was a sailor and had seen Vietnam, Singapore, Korea. The wide world, in other words. Europe opened up the world for me like Asia did for my father. I would never again confuse Oregon for the world. Though much later I would realize Oregon too was part of that wider world.

There is no substitute for travel to get at the truth of a place. Like the peripatetic Indo-Irish novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell, I too believe most truths are truths of place. In the American media, the picture of Europe is one of a thriving, coherent and threateningly swanky though slightly irrelevant culture, full of proud, even belligerent, Euro-citizens dead set against the U.S. and determined to go toe-to-toe with it as a world force. But that picture is incomplete, perhaps even altogether wrong.

My experience is best illustrated by the encounter SJ and I had with a waitress in Berlin. We had stopped into a traditional German restaurant in Berlin in a side street off the Ku’damm – all Thüringer wurst, glüwein and Berliner Weisse mit Schuss – for an early dinner. Berlin is a city I had last visited before the wall fell. The Potsdamer Platz I remembered was an eerie, gargantuan concrete wasteland surrounded by Stalinist apartment houses and dotted like a de Chirico painting with vague, paranoid figures emerging from and returning to the shadows. In the last five years the building in Berlin has reached a fevered pitch. The Potsdamer now resembles, in the early summer evening, a cheery version of Blade Runner, full of curved glass walls, blued steel and tiled passageways, stuffed to the gills with modern, lively German citizens. When I hailed this new Germany to the waitress we had been talking to, she shook her head. “No,” she insisted sadly. “Germany is dead.”

Another example of how this Europe I walked around in differed from the one I had watched on CNN and read about in the New York Times was the build-up to the elections for the European Union’s parliament. Considering that the parliament was responsible for trade, labor, environmental and cultural issues for the 25 countries of the Union, one would think the elections would be a major concern. The EU had just expanded, adding 10 countries only two months earlier. But every European broadcast media, from France’s TV5 to Italy’s RAI to the BBC reported a wide-spread apathy. Euroscepticism, as they termed it, was everywhere. Interviewees from Porto to Aberdeen, from Den Haag to Naples complained that the enormous 732-seat parliament was expensive and corrupt and that the Union took huge amounts of money out of the member states’ coffers, returning virtually nothing in return. One report outlined the travel scheme for the parliament, in which members were allowed to claim reimbursement for up to eight times their travel expenses.

In fact when the election did take place, from the 10th to the 13th of June, the turn-out rate was only 45%, very low for a region in which voting rates regularly approach 80%. And those parties that did get elected were protest parties. The Eurosceptic UK Independence Party won in Britain. When the BBC asked new UKIP European Parliament Member Robert Kilroy-Silk what his party intended to do in the European Parliament, he replied, “”Wreck it – expose it for the waste, the corruption and the way it’s eroding our independence and our sovereignty.” The other members’ Ministers almost all came from parties in opposition to their sitting governments. So much for a united Europe.

SJ and I sat in the Leche Vin, a bar off the Place de la Bastille in Paris with David, an old photographer friend from Boston who had just finished an assignment to illustrate a new edition of the best-seller “The Da Vinci Code,” which is set in part in Paris. As SJ and David talked about… well, whatever photographers and painters talk about, I chewed the fat with Roland, a Frenchman who had spent time living, as I had, in San Francisco. “I love America,” said Roland. Hold tight. A Frenchman who loves America? “I love it so much I can hardly say.” He talked me through his time as an engineer in the bay, how he had, alas, fallen in love with a French woman, followed her back to Paris and promptly broken up with her. He asked me what do the American people think about the war? What do the American people feel about the election? Who do they think will win? What did I think about John Kerry? What did I think about France? I loved it, I said. Unreservedly, wildly, I loved it more in person than I did reading about it in books, which can scarcely be imagined.

The Europe I encountered was not much of a Union. It was not the X to balance out America’s Y in the equation of global power. Europe remains a collection of sovereign countries, each not farther away from the other than one U.S. state is from the next, but each holding within its borders, as though within the covers of a book, a different chapter of the world’s continuing history.

American Monster IV: The City of Light and the Cités of Darkness


On the night of the gay pride parade in Paris, S. and crossed the river to meet our friend David for drinks. We walked across the place de la Bastille, which we later discovered contained 600,000 revelers. On the way we saw a man beating on two drag queens. The crowd followed the assault back and forth across the square with the kind of unpredictable ebb and flow of which only a mob is capable. S. plunged into the clot of 600 observers to pull the drag queens away from their victimizer. Panicked, I plunged in to pull S. away from the mob.

This was only the first of four brutal assaults we saw that night. A common element of every fight was the participation of northern African immigrant youth. I am mentioning this not to indict Muslim immigrants as congenitally criminal, but to point out what has become the defining issue for 21st century France, for Paris in particular, and for Europe in general: immigration.

France, a country of fifty-nine million, nine of whom live in Paris, has an non-native population of six million. Most of this immigration has happened since the Second World War. It is not there was no immigration prior to that, but decrease in European populations due to war, and the need for post-war rebuilding, made it desirable to import workers. Afterward, especially as the European powers gave up their colonies, commonwealth agreements made it possible for the formerly colonized to immigrate to the lands of the colonizers.

Although the Seventies saw a clampdown in the generous immigration rules in Europe, the immigration itself did not slow, especially immigration from non-E.U. countries. Among other things, family members joined immigrants in their adopted countries. For another thing, most countries make exceptions for “asylum seekers,” people fleeing “persecution” in one form or another. It is this asylum exception that may account for the increase in non-E.U. immigration in the last twenty years. Certainly the Europe I first visited in the early eighties was not nearly so ethnically diverse as the one from which I have just returned. The city of Frankfurt, for example, one of Europe’s financial centers and not a traditionally diverse city, now has a foreign-born population of 30%.

For France in particular, two issues have made this latest wave of immigration very difficult to deal with: cultural dissonance and the lack of a technology of assimilation.

Most immigrants to the wealthier European countries, such as the UK, Germany and France, used to be southern Europeans; Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards mainly. There was a shared culture in that all peoples were citizens of Europe. But today’s immigrants, especially to France, come mostly from Islamic countries, from the Maghreb, the Levant, from Mali and so on. So the culture of the immigrants and the culture of France are frequently at variance.

There is one important way in which the European countries differ from a country like the United States, whose national consciousness has been built, however imperfectly, by immigration. The notion of being French, or German, or English, is based on ideas and structures that were created long before today’s immigration became a reality. How can one be a Frenchman when one speaks Berber? When one wears a hijab? In the case of France, the notion of a “minority” is not even legally recognized. Everyone is simply French. The census does not break down citizens using any criteria of ethnicity or national origin.

The French government set up their immigrants with everything they need – subsidized rents, food, utilities, medical care, child care, education – everything except the one thing that can make them real citizens: inclusion. The overwhelming majority of immigrants that settle in the Ile de France are housed not in Paris, but around it, in public housing apartment blocks. In this respect Paris is similar to most other large cities of France, where the suburbs, not the inner cities, are the “ghettos.” Police frequently refuse to go in to these cités, as they are called, as do firemen and ambulance drivers, since all three are routinely attacked by the inhabitants. These suburbs are underserved, sometimes completely unserved, by public transportation. Work, one element of social life that forces people from different backgrounds together, is hard to find for immigrants in a country that is both paternalistic and has a 9.5% unemployment rate.

Considering the difficulty European immigrants face in becoming an integral part of the societies they find themselves in, it is small wonder that they make up a disproportionate population of European prisons. Over 29% of French prisoners are immigrants and over 50% are Muslim. When Muslim clergy exhort their parishioners to outbreed their hosts, when they maintain their host countries are immoral and therefore legitimate targets of violence – one popular imam in Amsterdam issued a fatwah against Dutch homosexuals encouraging his parisioners to throw them down into the streets from the rooftops – we can object, but we cannot credibly pretend to be shocked.

All of my prior knowledge about Paris came from books and most of those books were written fifty to eighty years ago. When I ordered wine I ordered Sancerre, because I had read it. When I ordered an aperitif I ordered a kir, because I had seen it in a book. And the thing is, Paris is every book you’ve ever read. It has an amazing ability to absorb, to contradict and to harmonize. Paris is bigger than anything that happens to it. Standing on the balcony of our little hotel on the rue de l’Abbe de l’Eppe between the church of St.-Jacques and Guy Lessac, I looked out over Paris, first toward the Pantheon, then toward the Luxembourg Garden. To look at Paris, to walk through it, is as the writer Adam Gropnik said, to move constantly from the monumental to the intimate. But it is also to move from time to time, from the death of Danton to the life of Abelard, from the studio of Modigliani to the penthouse of Catherine Deneuve, from the Deux Magots of Hemmingway to the Montmartre of Berthe Morisot. The question for the future of Paris is: will the City of Light be able to absorb the cités of immigration? Perhaps that question is not for Paris alone. Perhaps that is the question for Europe.